News media on trial: towards a feminist ethics of reporting footballer sexual assault trials

Deb Waterhouse-Watson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Court reporting is rarely discussed in journalism ethics, as it seems to be widely viewed as a straightforward task. However, this article develops a theory of meaning-making in court reporting to show how media coverage of high-profile sexual assault trials poses complex ethical questions. Positioning court reporting as a “hybrid” genre between legal narrative and news reporting, I show how genre conventions grant particular kinds of significance to events and speech acts. Subtle discursive and narrative strategies privilege either the prosecution or defence’s narrative, portraying the defendant or complainant as “guilty” even without overt sensationalising or vilification. Using the trial of Australian footballer Brett Stewart as a case study, I show how even reporting that meets current ethical standards can be ethically questionable, including reinforcing myths and stereotypes about rape—such as relating to mental illness and DNA evidence. I suggest that another, feminist approach to journalism ethics is needed in these cases, to balance the right of a defendant to the presumption of innocence with the rights of a complainant, and the feminist imperative to counter damaging attitudes towards rape.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)952-967
Number of pages16
JournalFeminist Media Studies
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016


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